“That’s quite a prospect haul heading back to Chicago”. That has been a common refrain over the past several months, as the White Sox and General Manager Rick Hahn dove headfirst into a rebuild. Chicago, long known to have several extremely attractive trade chips on team-friendly contracts, have finally executed a number of trades that have shifted the teams resources and focus from now to the future. The trade deadline hasn’t yet come, but many will surely posit that the White Sox have been among the winners as sellers.
At this point, such a shift in direction looks to be pretty clearly the right move. The team has finished below .500 for four consecutive years, and the farm system profiled as uninspiring last year, ranking 20th per Baseball Prospectus in 2016. With little hope to win now and few young talents to dream on, selling the major league assets they had on hand was the most obvious course of action for the South-Siders.
Barely half a year into the rebuild, it’s tempting to call the teardown a success. No rebuild is truly a success until the fruits of the young infusions of talent bear fruit at the Major League level and the team starts winning, but frustrated White Sox fans could be forgiven for looking at the hauls of prospects that Hahn and Co. have shipped and thinking that things have gone swimmingly.
It’s hard to recall an organization that so quickly acquired so much top tier talent. In a matter of months, Chicago has brought in two top-10 hitting prospects in Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez, along other top-100 type position player prospects like Blake Rutherford and Luis Robert. On the pitching side, live-armed hurlers like Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning come with risk, but also tons of upside.
In the blink of an eye, the White Sox have transformed an unimpressive farm to one that’s the envy of the league. None of these players are sure things, and in fact the White Sox are mostly betting on players with loads of raw talent and tools rather than strong on-field performances. But the team now has a path, and Chicago can now envision a road back to contention, mostly on the strength of high upside prospects.
Yet it’s worth asking: why has the rebuild gone so well? Why has Hahn been able to extract a bounty with every move he’s made? The answer is simple. The White Sox are reaping strong prospect packages left and right because they are dealing great players on cheap contracts left and right. Other teams are willing to surrender a bounty for the players Chicago is selling because they see these players as worthy of building contenders around. That Chicago is selling these talents, rather than using them as a foundational core of a contender, speaks to an organizational failure.
Indeed, this seemingly successful rebuild essentially represents a failure by the White Sox to convert on a number of incredibly favorable contracts and open a window of contention based on several underpaid stars. That Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton, and Jose Abreu, Chicago’s primary trade chips, were not enough to build around is a colossal disappointment, no matter how sweet the prospect reward is now.
From 2014 to 2016, that quartet of Sale, Quintana, Eaton, and Abreu combined for over 55 WAR per Baseball Reference. They were paid just about $60 million, basically a rate of $1 million per WAR. That’s eye-popping, especially when considering that the price for a win above replacement on the free agent market is in excess of $8 or $9 million. With this star group of players averaging nearly 20 WAR a year at bargain bin prices, the White Sox, playing in one of the game’s premier markets, were left with plenty of resources to build a serviceable supporting cast around their core.
Instead, the White Sox appeared to take half measures. They never made a splash to ensure that their elite core had top tier running mates, nor did they spread the savings on their stars’ enviable contracts around the roster to ensure a deep supporting cast. After the 2014 season, a deflating 73-89 campaign, the team’s win-now moves consisted of acquiring a closer, David Robertson, an average corner outfielder in Melky Cabrera, and a solid starter in Jeff Samardzjia. Robertson and Cabrera cost a combined $26.5 million annually, and Samardzija cost decent shortstop prospect Marcus Siemien.
That was not nearly enough talent to bolster their core. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the 2015 edition of the White Sox disappointed as well, to the tune of a 76-86 record. After the 2015 season, the team took even more half measures, refusing to truly invest in winning with this core, and instead making cautious, low-key moves to paper over the roster’s most glaring weaknesses. This meant a trade for a fine starting third baseman, Todd Frazier, and little else, with flyers on veterans like Jimmy Rollins and Austin Jackson amounting to nothing.
The 2016 White Sox started well before fading for another poor season. They had wasted multiple years of their stars’ primes, but they were all still on excellent contracts, and Hahn hit the detonate button. Sale and Eaton were gone after 2016, with Quintana, Robertson, and Frazier all having been dealt in recent weeks.
It’s easy to say in retrospect that the White Sox could have recouped an even more incredible prospect return if they had dealt their stars even earlier. If Chicago wasn’t going to contend, what was the point of holding onto their best players when they could be dealt for tremendous value? But it is in some ways a fair criticism. it was Chicago’s choice to not fully commit to building around Sale and Quintana and Co. Instead, they straddled the line, making tentative win-now moves that didn’t move the needle.
Chicago’s payrolls never ranked above 15th in the league between 2013 and 2016 according to Spotrac. That the White Sox could be gifted some of the most team-friendly contracts in the league while playing in Chicago and not even come close to running a high payroll is simply a massive missed opportunity. It would not have taken much to build a good team around Sale, Quintana, Abreu, and Eaton. Even a group average players around those four would have been enough to build a team that would have contended for pennants year in and year out.
Instead, Chicago has prospects, and a handful of losing seasons to look back on. Those prospects look great, and the 2020 White Sox may be plenty exciting. It’s just a shame the 2014-2016 White Sox weren’t as well.